Synecdoche, New YorkWritten and directed by Charlie KaufmanStarring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener and Michelle WilliamsRated R9
Goes well with: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Being John Malkovich
Charlie Kaufman has always written unique films. In Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he used surreal concepts to explore what people are like below the surface, often in ways that are confusing and more complex than other movies that make it to the multiplex. But in those projects, he worked with strong directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, who have brought his words to life, put their own visual stamp on them and brought a sense of order and coherence to his work.
Kaufman makes his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York, a glorious, sprawling psychological mess, and without a different person at the helm he's free to throw all of his ideas up onto the canvas. Perhaps not surprisingly, this has drawn charges of self-indulgence and pretentiousness. Synecdoche is conceptually enormous, and at times it threatens to collapse under the heavy weight of its ambition, but it's also new, fresh and, if you're willing to take the stage with Kaufman, as tragic and exciting as real life itself.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard, an unhappy theater director creating offbeat productions in Schenectady, N.Y. He's sure his health is bad, and he's simply unable to accept that fact that when his wife (Catherine Keener) takes his daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) to Europe for an exhibition, she has no plans to bring her back.
This is where Synecdoche becomes less than straightforward. We have no idea how long it is before Caden is given a MacArthur grant. So he gathers his company to create his ultimate work, something he can't quite grasp but that he knows is real and true.
This, it should be said, involves building a life-size replica of New York City in a warehouse in New York City.
That's right. Life-size. Real.
Naturally, this comes with complications. As the project gets bigger and bigger, he has to cast someone to play himself and his assistant and someone to play his second wife, who has left him—and, eventually, someone to play each of those people. And the cycle continues as art imitates life and life imitates art and the two become almost indistinguishable and, somehow, life still goes on, both inside the warehouse and out. There are layers upon layers upon layers, literally, as Caden grows older, searching for truth. This is heavy shit.
But is it self-indulgent? Pretentious? Look, that's how I feel about movies like Blood Diamond, The Kite Runner and most films from Ron Howard. Movies that think they're hugely self-important while hammering you over the head with a message that's accompanied by a saccharine score. Synecdoche is challenging but well-considered, even if it's maddening in its demands on its audience.
Caden, of course, is Kaufman—or any of us, really—striving to produce something that feels honest. That's the thing about Synecdoche—it's really all about what any of us goes through in the course of our life. If we have kids, eventually they'll leave us. We sometimes miss the people we shouldn't. We're worried about whether we're doing a decent job at doing a decent job. Caden's play—Kaufman's movie—is the play of life. We all put on performances in this epic production every single day as we interact with the people in our own life-size versions of the world.
Sometimes we're real and true, sometimes we aren't, but we're all just mucking through hoping for a little applause.
So, yes, you have to work hard to get on board, because there is far more going on than has been described here (and seriously, don't even bother asking about the title). You can't be blamed if Synecdoche feels to you like cinematic masturbation—especially since the payoff is that eternal existential message: Life's a bitch. Kaufman's trying to be as real and as truthful as possible, but he's been in Hollywood long enough to make sure the only time Caden's message is truly spelled is when his assistant takes the reins, directing the actors to be more accessible and commercially viable. The message is finally clear, but if it isn't really real, how sure can we be that it's actually true?